Cuba has long struggled for independence at the national level, so it was an easy parallel for Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Jennifer Redfearn to draw upon that sentiment with the story of three blind women in Havana navigating their own autonomy.
Touch the Light tells the stories of Lis Rivero, Mily Perez Grillo and Margarita Vega Laza, following their personal journeys over the course of three years. One particular low-tech for humanity aspect that piqued our curiosity was the use of audio narration.
One of the main characters, Margarita, is a member of a cinema club for the blind and visually impaired in Havana. The cinema club screens Cuban films accompanied by detailed audio narration of the action.
“Leaders in the blind community are always looking for ways to help their community be more independent,” says Redfearn of the group of visually impaired Cubans living and working in Havana. “Cubans love their cinema and have a rich history in the art form that spans over 50 years, so being able to go to the movies and experience cinema allows them to engage with a vital part of their culture. They get to experience the film on their own.”
Redfearn, who collaborates with her partner, producer and cinematographer Tim Metzger on all her projects, points out that the cinema club and audio narration is only one important element of the film, which shows how this vibrant community of blind people maintains their independence.
“Really this is a universal story as well,” says the Boston-bred, Brooklyn habitant. “The main characters in the film are struggling for their independence while at the same time their families worry about their safety. It’s a story of caretaking that many families can relate to.”
Not Impossible Now got to chat with Redfearn on how she came upon the subject at large, and this fascinating trio.
What is the story behind the story? How did you come across it and these inspirational women?
Jennifer: Tim and I had been interested in Cuba for a long time because of its rich culture and complex political history. We wanted a story that brought us into the lives of Cuban families – something more intimate and character driven that would give the audience a deeper understanding of what life is like there. It’s often a perspective we don’t see in the media.
It started when I came across an article about the cinema club, which had only opened three months before we started filming in 2012. It raised all of these questions for me, like how does it work, what’s the experience for the cinema goers, and why does it exist in Cuba?
We met Margarita, Lis and Mily through the cinema club and the blind community in Havana, and the more they shared their lives with us, the struggle each had individually for independence became clear. In a place like Cuba, independence is an important part of the national consciousness. It is something you hear in the language and see in the art. We thought the backdrop of Havana would work well for this story.
How does audio narration work?
It’s almost like making a film within a film. There’s a team brought in to work on a script and they focus on describing the action in between the characters’ dialogue. They spend weeks fine-tuning that script and when they’re happy with it, they generally use a well-known actor or radio personality to record the narration in a studio.
In the US, there’s a similar process of audio description, but it’s played through a headset that a blind or visually impaired person wears when they go to a movie, so they can still experience ‘going to the movies,’ but it’s not a shared experience in the same way. In Cuba, audio description takes place outside of the theater, it’s imbedded in the DVD. Then the community meets to watch the film together.
Some of the blind people we met in Cuba told us they would go to the movies before the cinema club was created. They could still listen to the dialogue, but they’d miss half of the story because they didn’t fully understand what was happening when the actors and actresses stopped talking – during non-verbal communication or scenes with a lot of action and little dialogue for example. For them, the cinema club was a really exciting prospect because it enhanced their ability to continue to enjoy the art form of cinema.
What was the experience, do you think, of the blind listening to these films?
Depending on when they lost their vision, each individual can have a very different experience of listening to an audio narrated film. Some people still have vivid visual memories that they can call up, but someone who was born blind can have a somewhat different experience of the film because they’re not using their visual memory. For some people, the experience may be similar to listening to a radio drama, and for others they are using their other senses to piece together the story in their mind as a picture they understand.
What did you see in the people attending the films? How did it make you feel?
We filmed several of the cinema screenings. Many people in the audience would recline back in their chairs, and they looked like they were transported, but my assumptions were upended after talking to them. During the film, they must interact fully with the material to fill in the visual details and to follow the story. It’s quite an active process. And Cuban films are layered with meaning and often confront important social issues, so, in general, the cinema is a place where people go to engage with ideas, not to escape from reality. It was energizing and exciting to learn all of this and to share these experiences with the community.
What are your wider views on technology being used for the sake of the human experience?
One of the reasons I really appreciated the audio narration at the cinema club was because I saw technology being used in one of the best ways possible. It’s making a cultural experience accessible for a community, but it’s also bringing those people together. To me, that is one of the more exciting uses of technology, when it’s not an isolated experience.
As someone who’s able to travel to remote locations, how do you feel about what you’re able to shed light upon with the technologies you use?
The equipment we use to tell stories is getting more affordable and transportable, so that makes it easier to travel to remote places and tell stories. The other thing that’s been incredible is the participatory nature of storytelling that the technology has advanced. For example, for our last film, Sun Come Up, we traveled to a remote island chain off the coast of Papua New Guinea to tell a story about climate change. Before we finished the film, we shared some photographs and video online and we were able to start building our audience before we finished a cut. That speaks to the changes in technology – the media is less expensive, the gear is lighter and more transportable so we were able to film the story, bring it home and share it a lot faster. And with Kickstarter and social media sites we continued to build and engage our audience.
We plan to do something similar with Touch the Light, and we also plan to make a version of the film with audio description so that it’s accessible for a blind and visually impaired audience. This is a very exciting part of the project for us.
They are currently finishing the feature length version of the film and a broadcast hour for public television. An audio narrated version will be screened in Havana for Lis, Mily, and Margarita prior to its release.